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Merlot is a red wine grape that is used as both a blending grape and for varietal wines. Merlot-based wines usually have medium body with hints of berry, plum, and currant. Its softness and "fleshiness", combined with its earlier ripening, makes Merlot a popular grape for blending with the sterner, later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, which tends to be higher in tannin.

Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, Merlot is one of the primary grapes in Bordeaux wine where it is the most widely planted grape. Merlot is also one of the most popular red wine varietals in many markets. This flexibility has helped to make it one of the world's most planted grape varieties. , Merlot was estimated to be the third most grown variety at globally, with an increasing trend. This put Merlot just behind Cabernet Sauvignon's .

History

Researchers at University of California, Davismarker believe that Merlot is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and is a sibling of Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon. The earliest recorded mention of Merlot was in the notes of a local Bordeauxmarker official who in 1784 labeled wine made from the grape in the Libournais region as one of the area's best. The name comes from the Occitan word "merlot", which means "young blackbird" ("merle" is the French word for several kinds of thrushes, including blackbirds); the naming came either because of the grape's beautiful dark-blue color, or due to blackbirds' fondness for grapes. By the 19th century it was being regularly planted in the Médocmarker on the "Left Bank" of the Girondemarker. After a series of setbacks that includes a severe frost in 1956 and several vintages in the 1960s lost to rot, French authorities in Bordeaux banned new plantings of Merlot vines between 1970 and 1975.

It was first recorded in Italy around Venicemarker under the synonym Bordò in 1855. The grape was introduced to the Swiss, from Bordeaux, sometime in the 19th century and was recorded in the Swiss canton of Ticinomarker between 1905 and 1910. In the 1990s, Merlot saw an upswing of popularity in the United Statesmarker. Red wine consumption, in general, increased in the US following the airing of the 60 Minutes report on the French Paradox and the potential health benefits of wine and the chemical resveratrol. The popularity of Merlot stemmed in part from the relative ease in pronouncing the wine as well as it softer, fruity profile that it made more approachable to some wine drinkers.

Viticulture

Merlot leaf.
Merlot grapes are identified by their loose bunches of large berries. The color has less of a blue/black hue than Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and with a thinner skin and fewer tannins. Also compared to Cabernet, Merlot grapes tend to have a higher sugar content and lower malic acid. Merlot thrives in cold soil, particularly ferrous clay. The vine tends to bud early which gives it some risk to cold frost and its thin skin increases its susceptibility to rot. If bad weather occurs during flowering, the Merlot vine is prone to develop coulure. It normally ripens up to two weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. Water stress is important to the vine with it thriving in well drained soil more so than at base of a slope. Pruning is a major component to the quality of the wine that is produced. Wine consultant Michel Rolland is a major proponent for reducing the yields of Merlot grapes to improve quality. The age of the vine is also important, with older vines contributing character to the resulting wine.

A characteristic of the Merlot grape is the propensity to quickly overripen once it hits its initial ripeness level, sometimes in a matter of a few days. There are two schools of thought on the right time to harvest Merlot. The wine makers of Château Pétrus favor early picking to best maintain the wine's acidity and finesse as well as its potential for aging. Others, such as Rolland, favor late picking and the added fruit body that comes with a little bit of over-ripeness.

Major regions

France is home to nearly two thirds of the world's total plantings of Merlot. Beyond France it is also grown in Italy (where it is the country's 5th most planted grape), California, Romania, Australia, Argentina, Bulgaria,Turkey, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro, Slovenia, and other parts of the United States such as Washington and Long Island. It grows in many regions that also grow Cabernet Sauvignon but tends to be cultivated in the cooler portions of those areas. In areas that are too warm, Merlot will ripen too early.

France

Vineyards and winery exterior of Chateau Petrus.
Merlot is the most commonly grown grape variety in France. In 2004, total French plantations stood at . It is most prominent in Southwest France in regions like Bordeaux, Bergerac and Cahorsmarker where it is often blended with Malbec. The largest recent increase in Merlot plantations has occurred in the south of France, such as Languedoc-Roussillon where it is often made as a varietal Vin de Pays wine. Merlot can also be found in significant quantities in Provence, Loire Valley, Savoie, Ardèchemarker, Charentemarker, Corrèzemarker, Drômemarker, Isèremarker and Viennemarker.

In the traditional Bordeaux blend, Merlot's role is to add body and softness. Despite accounting for 50-60% of overall plantings in Bordeauxmarker, the grape tends to account for an average of 25% of the blends-especially in the Bordeaux wine regions of Graves and Médocmarker. Of these Left Bank regions, the commune of St-Estephemarker uses the highest percentage of Merlot in the blends. However, Merlot is much more prominent on the Right Bank of the Girondemarker in the regions of Pomerolmarker and Saint-Emilionmarker where it will commonly comprises the majority of the blend. One of the most famous and rare wines in the world, Château Pétrus, is almost all Merlot. In Pomerol, where Merlot usually accounts for around 80% of the blend, the iron-clay soils of the region give Merlot more a tannic backbone than what is found in other Bordeaux regions. It was in Pomerol that the garagiste movement began with small scale production of highly sought after Merlot based wines. In the sandy, clay-limestone based soils of Saint-Emilion, Merlot accounts for around 60% of the blend and is usually blended with Cabernet Franc. In limestone, Merlot tends to develop more perfume notes while in sandy soils the wines are generally softer than Merlot grown in clay dominant soils.

Rest of Europe

In Italy, a large portion of Merlot is planted in the Friulimarker wine region where it is made as a varietal or sometimes blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. In other parts of Italy, such as Tuscany, it is often blended with Sangiovese to give the wine a similar softening effect as the Bordeaux blends. Merlot's low acidity serves as a balance for the higher acidity in many Italian wine grapes with the grape often being used in blends in the Veneto, Alto Adige and Umbria. The Strada del Merlot is a popular tourist route through Merlot wine countries along the Isonzomarker river. Italian Merlots are often characterized by their light bodies and herbal notes.

In Hungary, Merlot complements Kékfrankos, Kékoportó and Kadarka as a component in Bull's Blood. It is also made into varietal wine known as Egri Médoc Noir which is noted for its balanced acid levels and sweet taste. In the Eastern European countries of Bulgaria, Moldova, Croatiamarker and Romaniamarker, Merlot is often produced as a full bodied wine that can be very similar to Cabernet Sauvignon. In Switzerland, Merlot accounts for nearly 85% of the wine production in Ticino where it is often made in a pale "white Merlot" style. In Spain, winemakers are petitioning authorities to allow Merlot to be a permitted grape in the red wines of the Rioja region. Plantings of Merlot has increased in recent years in the Austrian wine region of Burgenlandmarker where vineyards previously growing Welschriesling are being uprooted to make room for more plantings.

United States

A Californian Merlot.
In the early history of California wine, the Merlot was used primarily as a 100% varietal wine until wine maker Warren Winiarski encouraged taking the grape back to its blending roots with Bordeaux style blends. In California, Merlot can range from very fruity simple wines (sometimes referred to by critics as a "red Chardonnay") to more serious, barrel aged examples. It can also be used a primary component in Meritage blends. While Merlot is grown throughout the state, it is particularly prominent in Napa, Monterey and Sonoma County. In Napa, examples from Carneros, Mount Veeder, Oakville and Rutherford tend to show ripe blackberry and black raspberry notes. Sonoma Merlots from Alexander Valley, Carneros and Dry Creek Valleymarker tend to show plum, tea leaf and black cherry notes.

In the 1980s, Merlot helped put the Washington wine industry on the world's wine map. Prior to this period there was a general perception that the climate of Washington State was too cold to produce red wine varietals. Merlots from Leonetti Cellar, Andrew Will, Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste Michelle demonstrated that areas of the Eastern Washington were warm enough for red wine production. Today it is the most widely grown red wine grape in the state and accounts for nearly one fifth of the state's entire production. It is widely planted throughout the Columbia Valley AVA but has earned particular notice from plantings grown in Walla Walla, Red Mountain and the Horse Heaven Hills. Washington Merlots are noted for their deep color and balanced acidity. The state's climate lends itself towards long days and hours of sunshine with cool nights that contributes to a significant diurnal temperature variation and produces wines with New World fruitiness and Old World structure. Other US regions producing significant quantities of Merlot include New York State's Long Island AVA, Virginia's Shenandoah Valley AVA and Oregon's Rogue Valley AVA.

Other New World regions

A Chilean Merlot.
In Argentina, Merlot plantings have been increasing in the Mendoza region with the grape showing an affinity to the Tupungatomarker region of the Uco Valley. Argentine Merlots grown in the higher elevations of Tunpungato have shown a balance of ripe fruit, tannic structure and acidty. In New Zealand, plantings of Merlot have increased in the Hawkes Baymarker area, particularly in Gimblett Gravels where the grape has shown the ability to produce Bordeaux style wine. The grape has been growing in favor among New Zealand producers due to its ability to ripen better, with less green flavors, than Cabernet Sauvignon. Other regions with significant plantings include Aucklandmarker and Marlboroughmarker. In Australia, some vineyards labeled as "Merlot" were discovered to actually be Cabernet Franc (a similar discovery was made in best vineyards of Californian Merlot producer Duckhorn Vineyards). In South Africa, plantings of Merlot has focused on cooler sites within the Paarlmarker and Stellenboschmarker regions.

Chile and Carménère

In Chile, Merlot thrives in the Apalta region of Colchagua. It is also grown in significant quantities in Curicomarker, Casablancamarker and the Maipo Valley. Until the early 1990s, the Chilean wine industry mistakenly sold a large quantity of wine made from the Carmenere grape as Merlot. Following the discovery that many Chilean vineyards thought to be planted with Sauvignon blanc was actually Sauvignonasse, the owners of the Chilean winery Domaine Paul Bruno (who previously worked with Chateau Margaux and Chateau Cos d'Estournal) invited ampelographers to comb through their vineyards to make sure that their wines were properly identified. Genetic studies discovered that much of what had been grown as Merlot was actually Carménère, an old French variety that had gone largely extinct in France due to its poor resistance to phylloxera. While the vines, leaves and grapes look very similar, both grapes produce wines with distinct characteristics – Carménère being more strongly flavored with green pepper notes and Merlot having softer fruit with chocolate notes. The labeling Chilean Merlot is a catch-all to include wine that is made from a blend of indiscriminate amounts of Merlot and Carmenere. With Merlot ripening 3 weeks earlier than Carménère, these wines differ greatly in quality depending on harvesting.

Wines

A Californian White Merlot.
As a varietal wine, Merlot can make soft, velvety wines with plum flavors. While Merlot wines tend to mature faster than Cabernet Sauvignon, some examples can continue to develop in the bottle for decades. There are three main styles of Merlot-a soft, fruity, smooth wine with very little tannins, a fruity wine with more tannic structure and, finally, a brawny, highly tannic style made in the profile of Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the fruit notes commonly associated with Merlot include cassis, black and red cherries, blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry, mulberry, ollalieberry and plum. Vegetable and earthy notes include black and green olives, cola nut, bell pepper, fennel, humus, leather, mushrooms, rhubarb and tobacco. Floral and herbal notes commonly associated with Merlot include green and black tea, eucalyptus, laurel, mint, oregano, pine, rosemary, sage, sarsaparilla and thyme. When Merlot has spent significant time in oak, the wine may show notes of caramel, chocolate, coconut, coffee bean, dill weed, mocha, molasses, smoke, vanilla and walnut.

White Merlot

White Merlot is made the same way as White Zinfandel. The grapes are crushed, and after very brief skin contact, the resulting pink juice is run off the must to then be fermented. Some producers of White Merlot include Sutter Home Winery, Forest Glen, and Beringer. It normally has a hint of raspberry. White Merlot was reputedly first marketed in the late 1990s, and should not be confused with wines made from the white mutant of the grape. In Switzerland, a type of White Merlot is made in the Ticino region but has been considered more a rosé.

Food pairing

In food and wine pairings, the diversity of Merlot can lend itself to a wide array of matching options. Cabernet-like Merlots pair well with many of the same things that Cabernet Sauvignon would pair well with such as grilled and charred meats. Softer, fruitier Merlots (particularly those with higher acidity from cooler climate regions like Washington State and Northeastern Italy) share many of the same food pairing affinities with Pinot noir and go well with dishes like salmon, mushroom based dishes and greens like chard and radicchio. Light bodied Merlots can go well with shellfish like prawns or scallops, especially if wrapped in a protein-rich food such as bacon or prosciutto. Merlot tends not to go well with strong and blue veined cheeses that can overwhelm the fruit flavors of the wine. The capsaicins of spicy foods can accentuate the perception of alcohol in Merlot and make it taste more tannic and bitter.

See also



References

  1. J. Robinson (ed) The Oxford Companion to Wine Third Edition, Oxford University Press 2006, pg. 746: "Vine varieties", ISBN 0-19-860990-6
  2. Oz Clarke Encyclopedia of Grapes pg 129-133 Harcourt Books 2001 ISBN 0151007144
  3. J. Robinson Vines, Grapes & Wines pg 91-94 Mitchell Beazley 1986 ISBN 1-85732-999-6
  4. E. Goldstein "Perfect Pairings" pg 148-152University of California Press 2006 ISBN 9780520243774
  5. J. Robinson Jancis Robinson's Wine Course Third Edition pg 142-143 Abbeville Press 2003 ISBN 0789208830
  6. BKWine Brief nr 35, May 2006: France’s most planted grape varieties
  7. G. Taber Judgement of Paris pg 108 Scribner 2005 ISBN 0743247515
  8. P. Gregutt "Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide" pg 70 University of California Press 2007 ISBN 0520248694



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